American Concert Pianist, Steinway Artist, Susan Merdinger

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Strike- MY OPINION

As the CSO Strike continues to weigh on the musicians of the CSO, the Chicago Classical Music community and Classical Music lovers around the world, I have been reading with great interest a lot of commentary on the situation at hand. I have noted a gradual shifting away of support from the musicians towards the management. and a general lack of patience with this process.

I want to go on record as saying that I am 100% in support of the CSO Musicians, even as I can rationally agree with some of the points being made by the CSO Management and their supporters. Here's why I think they are doing the right thing to hold out for a better deal, but also why I feel they are going after the WRONG DEAL in the first place:

Firstly, these musicians are amongst the very best classical musicians in the entire world. The CSO has built a greatly deserved reputation for its brilliant sound and expert ensemble and interpretations of the great classical symphonic repertoire to the most cutting-edge contemporary music by leading Classical Composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. I have previously written on a Facebook Post about the costs and sacrifices of becoming a Classical musician- I don't think I need to repeat it here in detail, but suffice it to say that the costs and sacrifice of becoming a world-class musician capable of performing in a top orchestra is equal or in excess of the costs of becoming a Medical Doctor, a Lawyer or a Corporate CEO. In addition, top athletes on Sports teams EACH often earn salaries in the MILLIONS OF DOLLARS!!! Not so for the classical musicians in the world's top orchestras. PLUS, do people realize that to re-hair a bow costs between $80-100 and a new set of Strings for Cello can costs upwards of $400. A box of Clarinet reeds can cost $30- half of which must be thrown out due to quality or playability issues! Not to mention the purchase and acquisition of the fine instruments that all musicians MUST have- some exceeding the cost of a HOUSE or at least the downpayment on one!

When lay people argue that the CSO only "works" 20 hours per week and they also get 12 weeks OFF- I scoff at that type of comment. All musicians have to practice individually, daily, for many hours, before they even set foot in the concert hall or at a rehearsal. Even if they KNOW the repertoire well, they must practice maintaining their skills. Additionally, imagine if your works hours were all day long, every day, AND you play concerts on the weekends and evenings- often not getting home until 11 pm at night. I imagine that you too would want to have SOME DAYS OFF, RIGHT? 12 weeks vacation is not a lot when you consider that MOST PEOPLE GET THEIR WEEKENDS OFF- to go out for dinner or to a movie or socialize with friends. For these musicians, their entire life is on the stage and practice rooms- for 40 weeks per year- so, aren't they entitled to 80 days off? Most professionals work 5 or 6 days out of a 7 day week. 52 weeks per year times 2 days per week off equals 104 days off!!!! PLUS anywhere from 2-6 weeks vacation time!

Because there are so many people training to be classical musicians and not nearly enough of the coveted spots in the top orchestras to accommodate all of the fine and gifted musicians, ONE COULD ARGUE THAT OVERSUPPLY of MUSICIANS, and no accompanied INCREASE IN DEMAND could potentially lead to REDUCED COSTS or FEES of SUCH MUSICIANS. One could also argue that ATHLETES are entitled to bigger fees- because as ENTERTAINERS- they FILL STADIUMS  with seating capacities of 10,000 or more AUDIENCE MEMBERS or FANS- WHO ARE PAYING CUSTOMERS. One could argue that Medical Doctors are WORTH MORE- because they have an even greater responsibility for peoples HEALTH AND LIVES.

There are several large fallacies and unfair comparisons in this argument- which is one that is supported by the "business -minded" board members and CEOs and Corporate heads. 

1. I think it is fair to say that the competition to get into the NBA or become an Olympic Athlete is as fierce and intense as it is to get into a top-level symphonic orchestra. That being said, Classical Musicians working full-time in a symphony orchestra, very rarely benefit from PAID ENDORSEMENTS, EARLY RETIREMENT, and OUTSIDE GIGS. For an orchestra such as the CSO, the commitment is almost 100% to the activities of the CSO.  And the royalties they might earn from the CSO recordings are so minuscule in today's day and age of "free music" that this source of income has also been virtually eliminated.

2. People think that musicians can have long, sustained careers without worry about injuries or age-related decline such as athletes usually encounter. This is ANOTHER FALLACY. The CHICAGO public has seen many of their beloved musicians of the CSO "ousted" because they were unable to maintain their previous extremely high standard of playing, due to health or age-related conditions- I cite here Dale Clevenger, Alex Klein, Charlie Pikler, as but a few examples.  Yes, musicians suffer from tendinitis, repetitive use injuries, neurological issues, vision and hearing loss, all of which can be attributed to simply "doing their jobs".  So, while we seem to justify a professional Athlete's grossly high incomes, due to their shortened careers and the "risks" to their physical health they may incur during their career- has nobody thought about this for our BELOVED MUSICIANS OF THE CSO?

3.  CSO Musicians have had to win their positions from extremely large pools of professional musician applicants. Often there are 100-200 applicants vying for a single spot in such an orchestra. So, if all the musicians auditioning were potentially equal in ability and talent (which is certainly a possibility), the mere mathematical chance of winning a position in ONE orchestra is about 1-2%.  But, if one argues that these musicians won their positions purely based on their exceptional talent, then we MUST assume that they are entitled to INCOMES that REFLECT THEIR LEVEL OF EXPERTISE AND EXPERIENCE. If we compare these WORLD-CLASS musicians to their LAWYER AND MEDICAL DOCTOR AND CEO equivalents, the musicians are indeed earning FAR LESS THAN ANY OTHER PROFESSIONALS IN THE WORLD. 

4. We must not talk about JOB SATISFACTION, and "loving what they do", as a JUSTIFICATION to PAY MUSICIANS LESS MONEY. Rather, we must argue that EVERYONE SHOULD HOPEFULLY BE EMPLOYED IN A FIELD WHICH UTILIZES THEIR PARTICULAR TALENT AND WHICH THEY LOVE TO DO. That is a definition of SUCCESS- and is a goal attainable by EVERYONE WHO IS MOTIVATED AND WORKS HARD.

5. NOW,  THE CSO MUSICIANS MUST realize that in today's day and age, people won't be sympathetic with them if they are arguing to keep or maintain something that NO OTHER PROFESSIONALS TYPICALLY HAVE- namely, this DEFINED BENEFIT RETIREMENT PLAN.  Instead, they must go with the old adage:

"CASH IS KING"- and ARGUE for BIGGER SALARIES- with INCREASES not merely to keep in pace with inflation ( which has averaged 3.22 % per year over last 20 years- not the 2% that is being offered by the CSO Management), BUT ALSO TO ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR INCREASED LEVEL OF EXPERIENCE THE LONGER THEY REMAIN IN THE ORCHESTRA. There seem to be no offers of MERIT-BASED Salary INCREASES for ALL THE PLAYERS. 

6. I APPLAUD the CSO Musicians for STICKING TOGETHER. And also for ADVOCATING FOR ALL CLASSICAL MUSICIANS IN CHICAGO AND AROUND THE WORLD.

While it is true that there are many bitter or jealous classical musicians who would only LOVE to have a position in the CSO with the current offer being made by the CSO Management, let's not forget that such critical and complaining musicians are "shooting themselves in the foot" so to speak. If the CSO Musicians cannot make higher salaries- WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE THE REST OF US? Barely skimping by- in a "Pay to Play" career which is demeaning and demoralizing after all the education and investments of time, money, musical instruments, opportunity costs that WE have made!

The CSO MUSICIANS are taking a STAND to TELL THE WORLD and in particular, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, THAT THE ARTS MATTER. THAT MUSIC IS PART OF A CIVILIZED AND CULTURED SOCIETY. THAT MUSIC HAS THE POTENTIAL TO HEAL THE WORLD BETTER THAN ANY LAW OR MEDICINE. THAT CLASSICAL MUSIC CONCERTS ARE AS ENTERTAINING AS BASKETBALL, FOOTBALL, AND  ICE HOCKEY GAMES!

7. Even though I support the CSO Musicians 100%, I am NOT entirely in favor of their other tactic of GIVING FREE CONCERTS to engender support and show appreciation to their audience base. This is devaluing their worth, and getting the public accustomed to going to FREE concerts- where no money is changing hands. LIVE AND RECORDED MUSIC IS A COMMODITY LIKE ANY OTHER. IT FEEDS THE HUMAN SOUL.  When CSO Musicians perform for FREE, it makes it even more difficult for the other presenting organizations and musicians to attract audiences and to earn a living from the ticket sales of their own concerts.

If the CSO Directors failed to raise enough money or sell enough tickets, then THAT IS A FAILURE OF THEIR BUSINESS PLAN-  AND THE MUSICIANS SHOULD NOT HAVE TO PAY FOR THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS AND MANAGEMENTS' FAILURE!

8. Lastly, CLASSICAL MUSIC HAS ALWAYS WORKED ON A PATRONAGE SYSTEM. Contrary to public belief, TICKET SALES DO NOT COVER THE COSTS OF PRODUCING THE MUSIC YOU HEAR IN THE CONCERTS. PATRONS HAVE ALWAYS COME UP WITH THE LARGE GIFTS AND ENDOWMENTS THAT MAKE CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS LIKE THE CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA THRIVE!

PATRONS, PHILANTHROPISTS: WHERE ARE YOU NOW? STEP UP TO THE PLATE TO INSURE OUR CHICAGO SYMPHONY MUSICIANS CAN BE PAID SALARIES THAT TOP-LEVEL MUSICIANS DESERVE. 

BOTTOM LINE:  CSO MUSICIANS:  CASH IS KING: Argue for HIGHER SALARIES ( Commensurate with top professional partners in law firms or medical practices) WITH MERIT INCREASES AND HIGHER ANNUAL RAISES, and ACCEPT the new benefit plans offered by the CSO BOARD.

PEOPLE HAVE BEEN ARGUING THAT THE CSO IS A BUSINESS.  WELL, RUN IT LIKE A BUSINESS, LIKE A PROFESSION,  LIKE A CULTURAL INSTITUTION,  AND LIKE A LABOR OF LOVE. BECAUSE IT IS ALL OF THESE THINGS!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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